Why do we Need Conflict of Interest Reporting?
Currently, most investigations into conflicts of interest are private until closed, with investigation, reporting, and judgment often within the same entity.
Creating an independent agency to simply report on conflicts of interest creates some additional public pressure to investigate upon any other agency or branch of government responsible for assessing potential crime.
Further, separating public reporting of conflicts of interest from judgment helps prevent the concealment of such conflicts of interest. Even without crime, conflicts of interest should be shared with the public. Yet at times, concealment may be attractive even to avoid a difficult, potentially protracted legal battle. Hence, separating reporting from legal judgment serves as a check on the instinct to avoid disclosure or prosecution even where merited.
Reporting allows effective use of the main accountability tool of a representative democracy: voting.
Requiring reporting and disclosures on conflicts of interest could substantially improve decisions of voters and help lead to public pressure for change where appropriate.
Further, despite several concerning executive branch appointments, hardly any investigations or prosecutions appear to exist into these appointments and the public memory appears short. At minimum, conflict of interest disclosures need to be available to the public.
Voters need to know if a public official has stocks or a job offer in the same industry being regulated by that official.
The ballot question proposes an investigative agency that would be led by a elected director with investigative reporting and journalism experience and who would provide public summaries of Massachusetts state and federal officer conflicts of interest. An appointed official with auditing expertise would assist the director with random auditing of financial disclosures.
Presently, there is a state ethics commission with 3 being governor appointees when 3 is sufficient for a quorem -- to a certain degree, this commission could be a commission of the governor's choice rather than one of full independence. Would a corrupt governor appoint anyone ethical?
Further, disclosures required by the state ethics commission are not posted online for the public, but must be requested, approved, the filer notified, the requester's picture ID required, months allowed to process, and printing costs potentially borne. This process is intimidating: imagine the political repercussions of requesting the disclosures of a powerful political figure!
The State Ethics Commission has engaged in numerous instances of penalizing conflicts of interest, but often these are egregious examples that can easily be identified as illegal, but it does not report in a public, centralized manner on conflicts of interest, as investigations are confidential.
Also, the state ethics commission does not appear to be investigating potential conflicts of interest among heads of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, including appointees, as these individuals do not appear to be discussed in press releases and this raises some questions about the ability of the state ethics commission to address such conflicts of interest meaningfully. The public should be well-informed of potential conflicts of interest, even if these are legally allowed or remain unprosecuted.
This proposed ballot question would shift some of the workload away from the State Ethics Commission, which reports being overstretched in its duties.
That the State Ethics Commission reports being overstretched is to be expected as the commission has reported ratios of more than 1,000 “subjects” of the ethics laws – legislators, public employees, political appointees, etc. – per agency staff member. The commission itself meets less than once a month.
Additionally, providing an alternative public arena for reporting of potential conflicts of interest serves as a check and balance to the powers of the State Ethics Commission and any other officials responsible for such investigations.
When conflicts of interests are freely reported and investigated, voters and public pressure will likely lead to change in advance of or before any prosecution and prevent re-election in egregious cases.
Government officials played a part in the 10 billion+ cost overruns of the Big Dig, which provided that contractors would make more money the more highway work cost. Investigative reporting did not occur until problems such as leaking tunnels appeared. Conflicts of interest reporting in an accessible location for the public would help to make issues clear to voters, often in advance of problems.
Investigative reporting by a journalist uncovered fraudulent overtime reporting at Troop F within the state police, which meant taxpayers were paying for services that were not provided.
The Inspector General, an appointee who has a 5-year term, reports saving 1.8 million in settlements and restitution in the year 2020, although primarily related to public employees rather than high-level officials and including the police investigation. The Inspector General also reports responding to 2,986 complaints through its fraud hotline.
If there was more public reporting of conflicts of interest, some of these investigations would be headed off as public pressure would prevent the conflicts of interest from continuing.
Before crimes can be recognized, attention needs to exist. Therefore, an investigative reporting agency evaluating financial disclosures and noting conflicts of interest is a first step towards uncovering crime. Yet, investigation is a difficult task.
Investigative journalists are being hit with frivolous, confidential lawsuits when conducting investigations as the Foreign Policy Centre reports.
The Investigative Consortium of International Journalists reports from leaked documents that international banks and federal government are doing nothing to prevent money laundering, such as most recently evidenced by the $50 million processed by JPMorgan for Paul Manafort, including 6.9 million processed after his departure as former campaign manager for Donald Trump.
Yet, we can and should be able to require and investigate disclosures from our state and federal officers, and further share any conflicts of interest with the public.
Despite whistleblowers, media sometimes fails to report issues or fails to do so in quantity and quality sufficient for attention and memory. In addition, conflicts of interest may be reported only locally, or in papers inaccessible to the poor, and fail to receive state-wide attention despite participation of a state official.
Issues such as installation of power lines, pipelines, wireless service, management of parks, sale of property -- many of these may reveal conflicts of interest which remain known only within small communities.
When whistleblowers report conflicts of interest and shady deals, there needs to be an independent platform to share that information with the public regardless of prosecution or locality.
Censorship remains an issue even in the good old USA, often due to powerful interests.
Project Censored has a running list of the top 25 most censored stories in the U.S. media. The attack on Iraq was predicated on imaginary weapons of mass destruction, yet during that time few media outlets questioned the U.S. administration as did few in federal Congress. Censorship is sometimes self-inflicted, as even media outlets fear being out of step with 'patriotism', subscribers and advertisers.
This bill does provide a public option for investigative reporting specific to conflicts of interest of Massachusetts state and federal officers. We need to support this kind of journalism, as there doesn't seem to be much funding elsewhere and since it is important to an accountable democracy.
Printed media outlets are going bankrupt and being purchased by billionaires, suggesting that those media outlets will serve as puppets to billionaires.
If those billionaires simply want to make more money, investigative journalism will not happen as it is costly. If those billionaires are like Carlos Slim, then investigative reporting will most likely stall and suffer.
Who is Carlos Slim? At one time, he owned 17% stock in the NY Times and he still owns a substantial interest. He is a billionaire who controls Latin America's biggest mobile telecom company and who has been connected to illegal drug sales and mafia tactics. Investigating or criticizing Carlos Slim or his operations is not likely to end well for anyone.
Investigative reporting is under the gun in many countries, and difficult anywhere. To hold our state and federal officials accountable, we need to provide public support to investigations and reporting.
This ballot question proposal offers a small measure of support for investigative journalism and reporting specific to our government officials, although others have proposed all journalism needs support.
The lack of trust in media stems in part from the erosion of media independence from big business, but also from perception of partisanship.
We need an agency trusted for independence from big business, which fairly examines disclosures for conflicts of interest including tax returns.
We need an agency that examines the disclosures and conflicts of interest of all officers and candidates, not just those of one party.
A component of the proposed ballot question is to require some reporting on nonprofits and other organizations endorsing or critiquing officers and candidates thereof. Currently, some information on Massachusetts nonprofit funding is available but not widely known.
Any criticism or support of officers or candidates needs to have its funders identified, to help disclose conflicts of interest.
Our state and national forests are being logged, even though trees contribute to clean air, water, beauty, habitat, carbon storage, and temperature and weather regulation. Legislation to protect trees nearly always stalls and rarely passes - despite fantastic legislation as listed under the MA Legislation page.
Why? Because there isn't any immediate cash or financial interest in saving trees, whereas there is money in logging them.
The fact that trees have so little protection despite obvious benefits to environmental and public health is suspicious, as if someone powerful somewhere has logging conflicts of interest.
This conflict of interest issue applies not only to trees, but to other sensible environmental and public health protections that never seem to pass while other measures benefiting big business often do.